Christians in Lebanon repulsed by Israeli strikes
Living in a state of shock
Christians in Lebanon repulsed by Israeli strikes.
By Tim Collie
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
July 23, 2006
Until last week, Antoun Aaraj would tell friends that he grew up
in "the safest town in Lebanon," a Christian enclave called Zahleh
that had prospered despite three decades of civil war, foreign
invasions and guerrilla insurgencies.
But Israeli bombs are falling just miles from his family's home, and
on Wednesday missiles destroyed three trucks carrying rice and sugar
toward the village. Shiite Muslims have been streaming into the town
and other Christian areas seeking safe haven.
"Growing up Christian in Lebanon, you'd always hear that it was
Israel that kept us from being destroyed by the Muslims," said Aaraj,
of Boca Raton, an Antiochian Orthodox priest. " ... My family had
very close relationships with Muslims, and we admired the Jews. But
if you bomb and bomb this place over and over again, you're going to
destroy these relationships, and I don't know what comes next."
That's the growing fear among Lebanese Christians in South Florida,
who feel trapped between two far more powerful forces, Israel and the
Shiite Muslim Hezbollah, that have turned the country into a free-
fire zone. Hezbollah triggered this latest Middle Eastern war when
their fighters mounted an ambush two weeks go in Israel and kidnapped
two Jewish soldiers.
Many Christians in Lebanon have traditionally aligned themselves with
Israel. Both Lebanese Christians and Jews were ethnic and religious
minorities vying for power amid Arab statehood movements and rising
Islamic fundamentalism. Both had a foot in Western culture as
European-influenced merchants and traders who lived along the
Now the Lebanese are watching their country being humiliated, say
those in South Florida.
The fighting follows by just a year one of the most promising
developments in the country's recent history, the so-called Cedar
Revolution democracy movement. Triggered by the assassination of a
popular former prime minister, Christians and Sunni Muslims rallied
together to push Syrian troops out of the country. A key sponsor of
Hezbollah, Syria had occupied Lebanon since 1990.
Lebanon was coming back, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists
and rekindling its reputation as one of the most liberal centers in
the Middle East. A series of national dialogues between Christians
and Muslims sought to disarm Hezbollah. Now that progress has been
set back 20 years, say some Lebanese Christians.
"The Christians right now are in a state of shock," said Robert
Rabil, a Florida Atlantic University Middle East expert who was
evacuated from Beirut last week. Many Christian leaders in Lebanon
had urged Hezbollah to disarm, but few support the massive
bombardment that Israel has unleashed on the country.
"They've destroyed the airport, infrastructure, highways and all
kinds of places that had been rebuilt over the last few years. People
plowed their life fortunes into this construction boom, and now it's
all gone," said Rabil, a Lebanese Christian who has studied
extensively in Israel. "I don't think that Christians at this point
become more supportive of Hezbollah, but the country has been
destroyed, and you can see some Christian leaders already are
reaching out to Muslims as Lebanese first."
Throughout Christian circles in South Florida as well as major
enclaves such as Detroit and Cleveland, the term "collective
punishment" is being used to describe Israel's actions.
"I certainly feel sympathy for Israelis being attacked and their
kidnapped soldiers, but as a father of three children I cannot
justify what's happening now," said Fadi Hardan, a transportation
engineer who grew up in the ancient town of Byblos, Lebanon, and now
lives in Aventura.
Israel may weaken Hezbollah, he said, but a shattered Lebanon will
only offer more opportunity for Syrians, Iranians and others like al-
Qaida to infiltrate the region.
"The problem with the country is that it's a house built on very weak
foundations," Hardan said. "If you don't have a strong foundation, it
doesn't matter what you're putting on top of it, it's all going to
crumble down eventually. The people are divided, but it's a place
where outsiders have interfered for their own reasons for many years.
"Now, you have to ask, if things were so bad before, what could they
be like after this?"
Lebanon's government is run through a power-sharing agreement between
three major religious groups. The country's three highest offices are
reserved for these groups: the president must be a Maronite Catholic
Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the
parliament a Shiite Muslim.
Smaller sects such as Alawite Muslims, Druze, Greek Orthodox and
Melkite Greek Catholics also play an active role. Alliances shift as
in any political system, and politicians routinely strike up
coalitions across religious lines.
Some Christian leaders have aligned themselves with Hezbollah, which
is the main Shiite party with an ideology rooted in Islamic
fundamentalism. The other main Shiite party, Amal, is more secular.
Because of their higher birth rates, Shiite Muslims have gained power
over the years, resulting in the rise of Hezbollah, or "Party of
God," in the sprawling slums of south Beirut and southern Lebanon.
The group was formed in the mid-1980s by Iranian troops seeking to
create an insurgency against Israel. Hezbollah holds 14 seats in the
Lebanese parliament and has two representatives in the country's
Christians have watched warily over the years as Hezbollah built its
military might with help from both Iran and Syria, and without any
restraint by the Lebanese military. Few politicians wanted to
confront Hezbollah, fearing a repeat of the brutal 15-year civil war
that killed some 150,000 people and maimed more than 100,000.
Instead, there have been efforts at negotiation largely ignored by
the rest of the world, Christians say.
"One of the saddest things about all of this is that there was a
dialogue going on between the Christians and Hezbollah for them to
disarm," said Samir Koussa, a Beirut-born anesthesiologist at Holy
Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale whose mother was being evacuated
from Lebanon on Friday.
"There was an opportunity to prevent this, but the United States
needed to get more involved," said Koussa. "You can't just stick
Hezbollah and Shiites with the label of terrorists and bomb them. In
the end, it's all Lebanese who are going to pay for this."
What worries many Christians now is that Israel will achieve its goal
of destroying Hezbollah's military reach into Israel, but leave it to
dominate the region.
"A pure traditional Christian-Muslim civil war is less likely, but
internal strife is very likely," said Walid Phares, a leading Middle
East expert on Lebanon who has taught at South Florida
universities. "If Hezbollah emerges as victorious, it will attack the
government, crumble it and oppress all the supporters of the Cedar
Revolution, and bring back Syria to Lebanon."
Tim Collie can be reached at tcollie@... or 954-356-4573.